A male reader asks about women’s responsibility in marriage –
I just finished reading your article on “Why women leave men they love”, and I have a major question. Why is it that men are always responsible for what women do or think? Do women have any responsibility to correct their own misbehavior?
I raise some ancillary questions. Why are most women incapable of recognizing their own failures? Whatever happened to women accepting their responsibilities? Whatever happened to “for better or worse,” or “forsaking all others,” or “in sickness and in health”? Women seem to have a very difficult time with loyalty or fidelity. It seems to me that a major element in their makeup is narcissism. Is there, anymore, any moral dimension or constraint that married women accept with regard to marriage?
It will be interesting to read what a postmodern marriage counselor has to say.
My response –
The content of your letter appears to be founded on certain beliefs. I hear these beliefs as something like this – “Lifelong marriage as an institution is intrinsically right and natural. Remaining married in spite of changes in circumstances and personal values is the goal and the moral imperative. People who can not or do not remain married despite their unhappiness in marriage are flawed. These people are mostly women.”
While I do not personally share these beliefs, as a counsellor I am accustomed to working effectively and compassionately within a variety of belief systems.
The term “postmodern” implies a deconstruction of meaning, and aptly describes the state of marriage and relationships for many men and women today. Not long ago we remained bound to social structures that dictated the terms of marriage and relationships. Today many people are re-assessing these institutions, along with the “moral dimension or constraint” that you ask about.
Women especially have been deconstructing their roles and exercising the new choices they have in postmodern relationships (though men too are increasingly rising to this challenge). I’m not at all convinced that women cheat more than men, although perhaps the double standard on fidelity is crumbling and so women are becoming more free to do what has previously been a male privilege.
As for recognizing one’s failures, this appears to be difficult for many of us, men and women alike; perhaps because the social, family, or internal consequence of failing has been so punitive. It requires a certain kind of maturity to confront our own failure. This maturity, for men and for women, is mostly discouraged in our culture. The very notion of failure (and success) is rooted in a system that rewards winners, punishes losers and fails to see the value of those experiences unconcerned with either.
In my practice I see many women and men struggling to preserve a marriage in challenging times because they value it, and each other, to the depths of their soul. I also see women and men make themselves literally sick or insane from the misery of staying in a marriage that they don’t want, that they have rejected but cling to for a variety of reasons. But mostly I see women and men trying to make sense of themselves and each other in a world where old rules no longer fully apply.
Many men are hurt and confused as women challenge conventional views of manhood, womanhood, family, marriage, sex and relationships. I get numerous messages from men that essentially say some version of this – “I work at a job I hate to provide for my family. I’m loyal. I make sacrifices. My wife has a duty to loyalty and sacrifice as well.” And so there is rage and bewilderment when a wife chooses loyalty to herself and leaves a marriage rather than continuing to sacrifice according to terms set by others.
If men are feeling comfortable and secure (or just sufficiently trapped) in their own dutiful sacrificial role, then they are probably going to forgo taking the life journey that may be calling. This causes additional stress, internal conflict and resentment. These men will see women who choose to take their own journey at the cost of their marriage as narcissistic and irresponsible.
It’s up to each of us to determine what sacrifice means, its role in our lives, and what an acceptable level of sacrifice might be. Sacrifice can be an important task that calls us to develop maturity, and it can be a tool of oppression that we use to crush ourselves and each other. My job is to help people discern these differences for themselves.
I actually endeavour to be a post postmodern (metamodern?) counsellor; I encourage flexibility of perspective depending on context. This requires an ability to sometimes resist the reflexive postmodern dismissal of traditional values, AND also to sometimes question the blind adherence to convention.
If I took for granted the “naturalness” and moral superiority of conventional marriage, with its views on fidelity, loyalty and responsibility I would impart this bias into my client relationships, which is precisely what many marriage counsellors do.
Who am I to say that someone is bound to remain in relationship with someone else for their entire life because they made an extreme but socially encouraged pact when they were twenty years old? Come to think of it, where else do we find such contracts in our culture? Where else do we say “No matter what happens for the rest of your life, you are bound to this agreement that restricts who you love, who you have sex with and virtually every other aspect of your life.” Even the most extreme business arrangements typically have a renegotiation clause, or some mechanism to ensure ongoing mutual benefit.
Whatever the benefits of toughing it out through an agreement we made two or twenty or fifty years ago – and there are many – there can also be benefits to changing or ending the agreement. When a woman comes to counselling and says “My marriage is a misery. I want to change it but my husband refuses to even discuss our relationship with me. We haven’t had sex in six years and he won’t talk about it. I don’t want to die without being held again…” shall I remind her of the vows she made twenty-five years ago and give her a pep talk on loyalty and fidelity? Do I know better than she about her experience? Does marriage?
Perhaps we’re being called to rethink this institution of marriage that we’ve inherited. I recently met someone who agreed to a five year marriage with a renewal option. They’ve been going for twenty and are now adding some unconventional clauses.
Thanks for responding to my article and for asking the questions that are on your mind. We live in a world of vast choices and infinite paradox. I lay no claim to “the truth” in all this, but I’m committed to exploring these complex topics.
All My Best,
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